When it comes to policy making in Washington, DC, what does not happen is sometimes as important as what does. Such was the case last month when the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act), which is intended to increase the accountability and transparency of federal spending. Absent from the bill were severe restrictions on the ability of federal scientists to participate in scientific meetings. The ASCB played a key role in dodging this bullet.
The story begins last November when draconian travel restrictions popped up in an earlier version of the DATA Act passed by the House of Representatives. Included in that bill was a small provision that, if it became law, would have carved into stone significant restrictions on the ability of federal scientists to attend and participate in scientific meetings.
The ASCB was immediately alarmed about the proposed travel restrictions. They arose from Congressional outrage following media revelations of alleged misuse of federal funds for lavish employee conferences held by the Internal Revenue Service and the General Services Administration. In response, the House wrote in sweeping restrictions on federal travel that, among other things, made it extremely difficult for federal scientists to attend scientific conferences.
To make clear the full impact of the House bill's virtual travel lockdown, the ASCB wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) as well as Senators Thomas Carper (D-DE), Jerry Moran, (R- KS), and Tom Harkin (D-IA). ASCB Public Policy Director Kevin Wilson also met with congressional staffers, including legislative aides for Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who is known as a vocal opponent of excessive federal spending but a strong supporter of federal scientists who need to stay current to remain effective researchers.
In his letter to the senators, ASCB Executive Director Stefano Bertuzzi wrote, "Scientific process does not take place in a vacuum. It is collaborative and depends heavily on interaction and the exchange of ideas and information that can only take place face-to-face at a scientific meeting. Not only is it important for researchers to share the results of their work with colleagues but it is critical for scientists to be able to learn what other research is taking place in their area of expertise."
Someone listened and the "carved in stone" restrictions were eliminated from the bill. Similar, temporary limitations still exist, however, and for that reason, the ASCB will stay vigilant on this issue, making it clear to Congress that all working scientists, even federal scientists, must be able to attend scientific meetings to present, hear, and argue about the latest research.